Six Races That Changed NASCAR, Part 5
There were already changes in the air as the green flag dropped for the 2001 season. The beginning of a new television deal and the return of Dodge to the sport were the big differences that were noticed right away. But on this day, the sport would change in a way that nobody saw coming. It was a day that still having an effect on NASCAR today. It's a day that every NASCAR fan will never forget. Part 5 of this series puts the tragic event of the 2001 Daytona 500 in focus.
Already, there were changes as the Daytona 500 and the 2001 season began . For one, it was the start of the richest television deal in the history of the sport. The Fox network broadcasted its first race with veteran broadcaster Mike Joy, Daytona 500 winning crew chief Larry McReynolds, and three time Winston Cup Champion Darrell Waltrip in the broadcast booth. Also, for the first time in more than two decades, Dodge returned to the sport. Another story was a new aero package that NASCAR mandated for the Daytona and Talladega races. There were many complaints about the racing after the 2000 Daytona 500. This new package was first used at the Talladega Fall race in 2000. The racing was close all through the pack from basically start to finish. It brought the excitement to the fans, but made the drivers in the cars nervous.
The race was just about a carbon copy of that Talladega Fall race. Very close racing all through the pack. It seemed like only a matter of time when the big wreck would occur. It happened on Lap 174. A massive, multi-car wreck occurred on the back stretch. Tony Stewart got the worst of it when his car got completely into the air. When the dust settled, more than a dozen cars were involved. The race had to be red flagged to clean up the damaged or destroyed cars and the massive amount of debris and fluid from the cars left behind on the track.
Once the race restarted, it became a battle of teammates for the win. Dale Earnhardt Inc. drivers Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were 1-2. Behind them, leading another pack of cars was Dale Earnhardt. On the final lap, it looked like to many that Dale Sr. was holding back that pack of cars so that one of his best friends and his son would settle the Daytona 500 between themselves.
Then, it happened:
As he was driving off Turn 3, Dale Earnhardt made accidental contact with Sterling Marlin. His car turned right, going straight across the track into the path of Ken Schrader. The contact with Schrader's car turned Dale's car into a more head on angle with the wall. As Michael Waltrip finished ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the win, Dale Sr and Ken Schrader skidded across the track, coming to a rest in the grass off turn four. Schrader got out of his car just about immediately. Everyone waited for Earnhardt to do the same. But he didn't. The first sign something was wrong was when Schrader frantically told the safety crews to hurry when they arrived on the scene. Dale was cut out of his car and was immediately sent by ambulance to a nearby hospital. But it was too late. Dale Earnhardt was pronounced dead soon after arriving at the hospital. The news of his death sent shock waves through NASCAR and the entire sports world.
The days after the tragedy, there began a tribute to Dale that would last the season, the asking of tough questions to NASCAR, and even some fan anger. NASCAR found answering questions about what caused Dale's death difficult. Some of the blame was placed on a broken lap belt. A fracture at the base of the skull, which may have happened by his head hitting the steering wheel, is believed to be the main cause. The photos of Earnhardt's autopsy photos are sealed by request of his widow Teresa.
In the days following Dale's death, some fans turned anger towards Sterling Marlin, the driver who accidentally made contact with Earnhardt at the start of the wreck. Sterling and his family was the target of threats and hate mail. Later that week, in his first news conference since his father's death, Dale Earnhardt Jr. publicly came to Marlin's defense. He said that any threats against Sterling would not be tolerated. Marlin would be cleared of wrongdoing in NASCAR's investigation and the threats against him stopped.
One of the troubling things in the aftermath of Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash was in 2000, three drivers died in on track incidents. In May, Busch Series driver Adam Petty died in a practice crash at Texas Motor Speedway. It left many to wonder why more wasn't done in regards to driver safety. After Dale Earnhardt's death, it was clear that NASCAR had to act.. In July, at the same track, Winston Cup driver Kenny Irwin died in a practice crash. In October, Truck Series driver Tony Roper was killed during a race at the
Almost immediately after the Daytona 500, most drivers started wearing a head and neck restraint called the HANS device. Later in that season, the HANS and another head and neck restraint called the Hutchens (which was kind of a full body device) were required to be worn by the drivers. Today, only the HANS is used in NASCAR. The sport also started looking at the race tracks. A new softer wall, called "SAFER Barriers" were put in place. They are designed to keep the energy that is made when a car crashes away from the driver. Safety was also a prime reason for the development of The Car of Tomorrow, which made it's debut at Bristol in March of 2007 and will be used on the full time Sprint Cup schedule in 2008. Since 2001, there has not been a fatal crash in the Winston/Nextel Cup and Busch Series.
NASCAR returned to Daytona in July for the Pepsi 400, the first race since Dale Earnhardt's death. In the closing laps, following a caution, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a performance that reminded many of his father. Dale Jr was in sixth place at the restart with six laps to go, then raced to the front and won the race, sparking one of the most emotional scenes in NASCAR history. It was a performance that would have made his father proud. Perhaps more than anything else, that helped NASCAR and the fans emotionally heal some after the .